Fantasy & Reality: Fighting Back against Injustice and Insurrection

The decisions handed down by the Supreme Court over the past week have been gut-wrenching. I know that many of you are sharing in my experience of grief and anger, and contending with a sense of disequilibrium, as we are forced to grapple anew with what kind of a country we’re living in. There’s a human fantasy that we can make the world work the way it should. But the radical shifts we’re witnessing in our country’s direction are reminding us of the fact that real life doesn’t work this way.

The decisions handed down by the Supreme Court over the past week have been gut-wrenching. I know that many of you are sharing in my experience of grief and anger, and contending with a sense of disequilibrium, as we are forced to grapple anew with what kind of a country we’re living in. There’s a human fantasy that we can make the world work the way it should. But the radical shifts we’re witnessing in our country’s direction are reminding us of the fact that real life doesn’t work this way.

The whole 40-year period of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness was characterized by complaints and grumbling, but in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach, we witness a full-blown insurrection. Korach and his band of followers directly challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership, and – by extension – God’s will. "You have gone too far!,” they accuse Moses and Aaron. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?" (Numbers 16:3).

At face value, it might seem like Korach makes a good point; the whole community is holy. But, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out in his 2018 commentary on the parasha, while Korach presents himself here as "the people's champion," he consistently misleads, through inferences and false accusations, trying to erode the Israelites' faith in the establishment. According to Rabbi Sacks, the rabbinic sages saw that the core problem with Korach’s challenges were not the fact that he argued with Moses and Aaron, but rather his motivations for doing so. They interpret that his rebellion was "not for the sake of Heaven"… that is, that Korach’s real aim was not truth, but rather personal gain.

In the parasha, the fantasy proceeds apace. “Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions” (16:31-32). Literally, the story moves in quick sequence through these steps: 1) Korach rebels with malice and for self-gain; 2) Korach is swallowed up by the earth itself, thus resolving the situation (phew!).

I’ve been thinking about Parashat Korach this week as I’ve read the last couple Supreme Court decisions and heard the continued testimony about the events of January 6, 2021. Needless to say, I disagree (or, perhaps I should say, I dissent!) strongly and vociferously with the Supreme Court majority’s rulings. I dissent when it comes to the denial of bodily autonomy, and the undermining of a half-century of feminist gains. I dissent when ostensible concern for fetuses trumps concern for the real live human beings who are carrying these potential lives. I worry about the un-doing of separation of church and state, a core foundational principle of our nation (and one of utmost importance to us Jews as a religious minority in this country). Most of all, I am terrified to see our country moving towards fascism, patriarchy, racism and Christian fundamentalism; I abhor the tyranny of the minority that’s emerging, as judges and rulings which do not reflect the will of the majority of votes are advanced through voter suppression and unfair power play. Stepping back, I can see the relationship between this spate of Supreme Court decisions and last year's attack on the Capitol (and related plans for a coup-from-inside), in sharp relief. We are witnessing a terrible perversion of justice in real time, built upon dangerous populism and a mountain of falsehoods.

I will admit -- perhaps a little sheepishly -- that some piece of me has engaged in the fantasy this week that perhaps the earth will simply open up and swallow all of our modern day rabble-rousers and insurrectionists. These leaders have been working assiduously over many years now to undermine our democracy, through gerrymandering, filibustering, fanning the flames of conspiracies and lies, and purposefully eroding people’s trust in our democratic system of government... much like Korach in his day. In my fantasies, the Supreme Court justices who were appointed by presidents who didn't win the popular vote (and thus never truly represented the majority of American voters) would just magically disappear. In my fantasy, we could wave a magic wand and wave away all of the insurrectionists – both those who launched a violent physical attack on the U.S. Capitol last year, and also the ones who tried to pull down the institution of democracy from the inside. In my fantasy, we could right the game board until it isn’t tilted any more.

Although it's cathartic to let my brain go down this road sometimes, I am aware that this isn't the reality. The same rabbinic tradition that pegged Korach as disingenuous and hell-bent on stirring the pot also taught that “the age of prophecy had ended” and “we don’t rely on miracles any longer”... by which they meant that in their day, in contrast to biblical times, God could no longer be expected to intervene in human affairs or to take care of evil-doers for us. Like them, we are left to our own devices. We must fight back against all those who would pervert justice through legitimate democratic action, noble ideals, and truth.

We are going to be in this fight – for our nation’s very soul – for a long time; this past week has certainly underscored that point, setting us back decades and making the unraveling of these rulings a long-term project. And, if we are going to be in it for the long-haul, it’s critical that we ground ourselves in spiritual communities like Kavana: to stay centered on our values, to cultivate the inner strength we will need, and to find safety in numbers. We who live in places like Washington State – where many of our rights are (thankfully) likely to remain intact – have a special obligation to help those who suddenly find themselves living inside altered realities.

We must vote like our lives depend on it this November, and also turn out other voters and do everything in our power to ensure the fairness of elections across our nation. We must contribute funds to organizations that are committed to helping people everywhere access abortions if they need them, and also help to de-stigmatize all reproductive health decisions. We must speak up as Jews to remind the world that this week’s decisions are an infringement on our religious freedom, in a country where separation of church and state has made it possible for minority groups to live and flourish. We will have our work cut out for us as we try to restore our democracy – and we must maintain moral clarity about our fundamental beliefs around human dignity and equality. As Rabbi Jay said to me earlier this week, “we must practice doing things that matter, even when it’s not creating obvious change.” Those who have been working to erode our American democracy have played the long-game, and their efforts are unfortunately bearing fruit. We, too, must commit to being in each of these fights for the long-haul!

This week, I invite you to read the Seattle JCRC’s statement on the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. I invite you to contribute financially – yes, right now! – to the Jews for Abortion Access Fund. I invite you to turn to one another for conversation and mutual support, considering what it will take for you to cultivate the tools you will need – clarity of values, stamina and resolve, a delicate balance of patience and righteous indignation – to be part of the multi-pronged solutions we'll devise over the months, years and indeed decades to come.

For better and for worse (maybe both), we do not live in a fantasy world; the earth is not going to open up and swallow Korach and his followers this time around! But, this week’s dramatic Torah portion reminds us that insurrectionists and evil uprisings have always been part of our collective story, and our generation is no different. We must remember that Korach will not and cannot win in the long run. Meanwhile, though, it’s on us to fight back from a place of values, clarity and collaboration.

Wishing us all fortitude as we embark on this challenging next chapter of our new American reality – and as always, grateful to be in this together with each of you,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum